Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beyond the Pampas: In Search of Patagonia by Imogen Rhia Herrad

Imogen Rhia Herrad is a remarkable person.  She's German and can speak fluent English, Spanish and Welsh.  Once, whilst teaching in a school in Aberystwyth, she learnt of the Welsh in Patagonia and decided to go there.  Beyond the Pampas tells of her journeys in Patagonia.  In some ways it is a travelogue, in some ways a search for history, but perhaps more than anything else it is a search for self.

She sets out with the intention of learning more about the history of the Welsh settlement, and speaks to a variety of interesting people in the Welsh speaking towns.  She is happily surprised at the welcome she receives and the way she is included in the lives of the people.  Since Imogen is fluent in Welsh, she finds it easy to learn the anecdotes and folk lore of the community - which turn out to be very similar to the ones I'd heard from their English-speaking compatriots.  I enjoyed reading about these again (and relieved I hadn't misinterpreted!).  However, after interviewing a museum curator who is a descendant of the Tehuelches, the emphasis of her research begins to change.  She hears about the life of the present-day indigenous population, and becomes determined to learn more about the remaining Tehuelche and Mapuche descendants who survived the nineteenth century genocide of the 'Conquest of the Desert'.  

This interest eventually becomes all-consuming, and the book ends memorably.  She is invited to a Mapuche religious ceremony on the top of a hillside. It is in part, a ceremony of thanksgiving: the Mapuche are at war with people of European stock, notably big companies like Benetton, for land, and just recently a small battle had been won.  Young men ride horses, old women beat drums, wheat and maize is buried in the ground as offering. A Mapuche flag is planted in the soil and the celebration ends with a barbecue - awkward for Imogen because she is vegetarian and so has to survive on bread and tea.  She has also had to spend the night badly equipped in a hastily borrowed tent, but she seems to emerge invigorated by the discomfort.  She says that if her work is ever published she will go back to Patagonia and bury a copy of her book in the soil.  

Somewhere in the middle of Beyond the Pampas Imogen reveals that her home life in Germany was an unhappy one.  She was abused, and until she made her escape at nineteen, regularly beaten. Since then she seems to have been searching for 'home', and on that hillside in Patagonia she seems to have found it.  I raced through this book, and as well as re-awakening old memories of my time in Patagonia,  it provided lots of new interest to me too - and was unexpectedly inspiring.


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